Miss Mary Mack

I’ve been teaching Ophelia “Miss Mary Mack.” Do you remember the rhyme? If you’re a woman about my age, and you grew up in an English-speaking country, I’m sure you do. It goes like this:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,
All dressed in black, black, black,
Had silver buttons, buttons, buttons,
All down her back, back, back.

She asked her mother, mother, mother,
For fifteen cents, cents, cents,
To watch the elephants, elephants, elephants,
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.

They jumped so high, high, high,
They reached the sky, sky, sky,
And they never came back, back, back,
Till the fourth of July, July, July!

There are variations: the version in Wikipedia (yes, there’s a whole entry for this rhyme) is a little different. Wikipedia says it’s the most common clapping game in the English-speaking world, and I’m sure that’s true. When I started teaching Ophelia clapping games, it was the first one I remembered, although “Miss Lucy Had a Baby” also came back to me pretty quickly. I started teaching her clapping games because she would get bored on the subway, and I didn’t want her playing games on my cell phone. I needed a way to keep her amused, and clapping games required only hands.

Once I started teaching her, I was surprised by the realization that she didn’t already know them. After all, she’s eight. Didn’t I already know clapping games by the time I was eight? Perhaps it’s because she plays primarily with boys, but I think it’s more than that. I think that the culture of childhood is disappearing.

If you’re my age, you probably remember having your parents tell you to get out of the house, particularly during summer vacation. We would get out of the house and just go — a group of kids, usually all the kids from the neighborhood. We would go down to the creek, wherever that was (there always seemed to be one), and play all sorts of games. Older kids taught younger kids games like Cat’s Cradle, and Slap Jack, and all sorts of jump rope rhymes. Songs like “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg . . .” (I bet you remember the rest.) Ophelia goes to one of the best schools in Lexington, which is one of the best school districts in the state, probably the country. Kids from the high school go on to Ivy League universities. The parents come from all over the world to work in Boston, primarily in medical and technological fields, and they live in Lexington for the schools. After school, their children go to chess club and robotics team and violin lessons, to karate and riding. They play together only at school or on playdates. And on those playdates, they play Pokémon or on their Wiis. Even Ophelia has an iTouch, given to her by her grandmother, so she can play Angry Birds and whatever else is on there. They don’t play clapping games.

Think about what we’re losing. Our children will be ready for a technological world, but we’ll have lost games and rhymes that have been handed down, child to child, sometimes for centuries. I think that’s terribly sad.

(On the other hand, I just realized that Miss Mary Mack would be an excellent Halloween costume. All you need is a black dress, silver buttons to sew down the back, fifteen cents (unless you’re doing the more expensive fifty-cent version — evidently, ticket prices have gone up) and a stuffed elephant. I think that would be a brilliant costume!

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13 thoughts on “Miss Mary Mack

  1. Brilliant costume and a sad observation. City of New York is currently hiring recess coaches because now that they’ve re-introduced research (on stern recommendation from pshrinks, apparently) they find the kids just stand around till someone teaches them to play (and then have to be taught to start games themselves). Foursquare, stickball, stoopball, roundup, Red Rover, Run Sheep Run, Duck Duck Goose, The Old Witch, Capture the Flag, all disappearing or disappeared.

  2. This does make me sad. But as a parent, I’ll make sure to teach my kids what I can. I never actually played Miss Mary Mack. My husband knew it though. I used to do this really silly one about McDonald’s. I do remember some of our old jump rope rhymes though — Cinderella Dressed in Yella. :) Funny enough, you can find youtube videos teaching many of these same games, so maybe technology will preserve it somewhat, but I think parents, older cousins and sometimes teachers will be the ones to pass this on.

  3. Looks like there’s an interesting documentary from PBS about lost street games from New York that came out in 2010.

  4. One of River’s afterschool “enrichment” classes is Fun and Games, which he really digs. I bet they teach him stuff like this, but I’ll have to find out for sure. He’s still only 4 (almost 5!), so I haven’t noticed him not learning this stuff as much. I mostly get to teach him new games and rhymes like this myself, which I really enjoy! This post actually makes me feel a little less guilty about doing so, if it turns out he wouldn’t have had them handed down to him from an older kid anyway. I’m the older kid!

  5. This really resonated.
    It’s difficult with kids today. (I have two boys: 8 & 11.) While one doesn’t want to force them into a contrived Luddite existence; one also doesn’t want them to find fun only in consuming electronic media parallel to one another, not really interacting with each other. Play – good old fashioned play – seems at times endangered. (Recently the children’s section of our local library here in Munich installed a Wii station. I was livid.)
    Years ago, I tried teaching my boys nursery rhymes, and was shocked to realize that I didn’t know how many of them went past the first verse or two. These oral traditions of song and play are so quickly lost, and that really is a shame. I agree that their preservation needs more effort on the part of parents than ever before.

    “…bat-mobile lost its wheel and Joker got away.”

  6. I think the reason kids aren’t playing clapping games anymore is because they aren’t spending enough time playing with each other. It’s not because of modern games like Pokemon or Wii. I don’t think playing Pokemon or Wii is any less of a childhood activity than singing the batman version of Jingle Bells. They’re just new activities kids can do in addition to the old activities. You can’t have a Pokemon battle yourself, the same way you can’t play cat’s cradle yourself – okay, you can always battle the computer, but it was always more fun to battle your friend. And Wii is so much more fun with friends than by yourself, the same way jump roping is. (I’m not sure what I think about the iPod Touch though. It’s such a gateway product into the digital world. And unlike the wii, most games on it are meant to be played alone . . .) I think the problem lies in the fact that children rarely play together outside of playdates. It lies in the fact that parents no longer encourage or allow their kids to go out and play with the neighbors until sundown. And when kids are together, they are only together for a few hours. They don’t have a chance to get tired of newer flasher games, like Pokemon and video games, and explore other, older activities.

    This is coming from a younger perspective. A perspective that grew up with Pokemon and video games. And much of the activities you described above that the Lexington kids’ did. I took music lessons, piano not violin, and I attended engineering workshops, both after school and during the summer. I even participated in a multitude of after school activities in elementary school: from ceramics to hand-chimes to graphic arts. So most days, I wouldn’t get home until 4pm or 5pm. And sometimes, I would spend summers traveling. But I had a wonderful childhood. I had it all: Miss Mary Mack (The version I know is closer to the Wikipedia version. There was only one elephant.), boys playing clapping games with me (There was no shame until 7th grade.), great neighbors, jump rope rhymes, cat’s cradle, slap jack, batman version of Jingle Bells, video games (I played a lot of video games.), Pokemon (I’ve played the original video games and card game. I know all my Pokemon types and weaknesses from anything 3rd generation and earlier.). I even climbed poles to get to the grape vines, swam almost daily in the summer, and read books at night. (I had such a perfect childhood, and I do realize that most people, regardless of their generation, didn’t get that.)

    But the point is that I was able to have a great childhood that included both older activities and modern activities because I was always with my neighbors. There’s only so much Pokemon battles and video games a kids can take in a day. For example, on a long summer day, after the 10th Pokemon battle, it’s still only 1pm. What do the kids do next, play another round? Nope, it’s hot, they go for a swim. It’s now 3pm, and their fingers are wrinkly from being in the water. What next? Hopscotch? Basketball? Chinese Checkers? DDR? Badminton? Hide-and-go-seek-freeze-tag-team-in-the-dark across the entire neighborhood? Swings? Biking? Wii? Kickball in the streets? Digging a hole to China? Mud pies? Jump rope? Playing with bugs? Collecting the oddest berries? Clapping games? The choices were limitless. And you had all the time in the world: you always had tomorrow. Nowadays, none of the later activities can occur on a playdate because a playdate is so short. The kids never get bored of Pokemon . . .

    (Sorry for the long comment. But this is a topic, I frequently lament about. I just had such a great childhood that I wished every child could have the same.)

    • Emily, that sounds absolutely wonderful! I wish Lexington were like that, but mostly children have to be driven places to play with other children. When I was young, it seemed as though our neighborhoods were filled with kids, no matter where we lived. Somehow, I don’t see that anymore. I wonder why?

  7. I think that the overscheduled thing is more a class issue than universal. I’m also not sure about the universality of clapping games being passed down from kid to kid– the only ones I ever learned the clapping to, I learned from my Girl Scout leaders, and they learned them from books. I have never actually done See See My Playmate because none of my classmates would teach me. I think clapping games begin at about eight; you may have the words before then, but my mother teaches kindergarten music and there are kids who don’t have clapping down at that point.

    But I also have to quibble hard on the idea that childhood culture is being irrevocably lost rather than evolving. I have seen a row of early-elementary snow creatures painted in art class including a snow vampire and a set of snow Angry Birds. The fifth and sixth grade display of ‘raining cats and dogs’ includes one pixelated kitty with the caption MINECRAFT CAT IS ADDICTED TO MINECRAFT. I played games based on X-Men, which I had never seen, and today the kiddos play games based on zombies. They still know about Urkel, the same way I knew about Urkel in spite of not having ever seen an episode of the show at the time. Some of them jump rope and chant about Cinderella dressed in pella.

    And yes, most of the schools I’ve worked at actively discourage the kind of play adults look back on so fondly. For every game of tag, there’s a kid who plays too rough or a kid who’s always it and ends up crying. We try to keep them from running on the play structures because when they run, they jump off, and the school’s had more than a few broken bones from bad landings or collisions. Besides, how many adults have forgotten smear the queer or everyone run away from the weird kid, we hate him, yell names at him?

    • I like the idea that childhood culture is evolving, and you’re right that this may be a class issue, particularly where Ophelia lives. I never played the more negative games you describe, but I’m glad they’re gone, if they are. I do, though, wish she could just go out with her friends and mess around in the woods the way we used to. I don’t know if that will ever be possible for her, at least not in that area . . .

  8. And when kids can’t play in the woods, they may not be motivated to save them. Another factor in climate change…Is there a movement afoot to bring back childhood?

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